Women in Pakistan are getting on their bikes in a bid overcome the barriers that limit their mobility and ultimately widen economic and gender inequalities.
Under Women on Wheels, a government-supported project, 35 women who had been trained to ride motorcycles participated in a rally on Tuesday in the city of Sargodha, in Punjab province.
Launched in January this year, the initiative encourages women to become independent, and reduce their reliance on male relatives for day-to-day activities, as well as getting to school, college or work.
Tuesday’s event was attended by Ingrid Johansson, the Swedish ambassador, representatives from UN Women Pakistan, local police and provincial officials.
The rally resulted in a rare sight. It is something of a taboo for women to ride motorcycles in Pakistan, a common form of transport for men, in cities and the countryside.
As dozens of women raced through the district in the Punjab on their motorcycles, their message was clear: We will be independent.
Al Jazeera met one of the organisers and several participants. Here are their views:
Salman Sufi, head of Women on Wheels initiative
Women on Wheels is an initiative of the Punjab chief minister’s Special Monitoring Unit. In Pakistan, 49 percent of the population is female.
They have never been empowered. They have always been in the background, reliant on the men in the family to get out, go to school, to do their everyday chores.
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Giving women the empowerment of mobility will give them economic independence, which in turn will lead to Pakistan becoming an economic superpower.
However, you cannot be an economic superpower unless you involve the 49 percent of the population in the process.
The initiative trains them in motorcycling training and is active in four districts of Punjab currently.
It will expand to all 36 districts.
Female empowerment programmes in the past, such as those that provided sewing machines, limited them to the household.
This is an actual programme encouraging them to get out and participate in education, working, medicine, engineering, motherhood – whatever they want, independently.
This is an Islamic country where all citizens must be equal participants and treated equally.
Nowhere in Islam does it say women can’t drive, and women can’t work.
In Islam, women have held revered positions, as businesswomen or leading battles.
We must allow the change, and making them independent is the first step towards the main goal.
|Hina Shaheen, 19, from Bhavlawala
It gives me self-esteem to know that I can now get around by myself.
My family has been very supportive.
They want me to prove that girls are no different from boys, and I want girls everywhere to know they can compete and be equal.
People say girls need to be constrained, but I feel if you keep your parents’ trust, nothing else matters.
And there’s no reason to listen to people who talk negatively.
You need to do as you please, and be prepared for every emergency you may face in life.
|Maryam Saman, 20, from Liaquat Colony, Sargodha
To go to college, or go out anywhere, you have to either wait for buses or wait for your parents.
With this programme, at last I can get around by myself.
I don’t need to wait; I am independent now.
Girls now need to make themselves heard, and must value their independence.
In big cities, girls are more used to their independence. Now in Sargodha, I can be independent too.
People in the neighbourhood do talk, but my father has supported me.
He picked me up and and dropped me off every day of the training.
In western countries women are free. In Pakistan we [also] need to be.
|Amber, 19, from Toba Tek Singh
The best part of the training is knowing that it will allow us to get back and forth by ourselves.
If there is an emergency, even if someone falls sick, we don’t have to wait.
My father is very supportive, so is the rest of my family.
Whenever you do something new, people will talk. Especially when you’re a female, people ask more.
But there is no difference between girls and boys – girls can do everything.
I decided I wanted to have a bike, so I came here to get the training.
Pakistan can’t be a better place if women keep sitting at home.
|Hira Arshad, 19, from Sargodha
It’s important for girls like us who are students.
Why should only boys have freedom?
If we have our own bikes, we won’t be dependent on anyone.
Family and relatives have supported me. My father is a driver.
Many people will talk nonsense and say things like, how can you sit like a boy on a bike? There have been negative comments, but how long will they keep saying things? Once, twice? Then they’ll stop. They have to stop, because we will make them.
We will defy negativity.
The mindset of the society will only change when the girls come out, and make a stand. Men will always have a problem, if we study, or work – they will get over it.
|Shamim Khalid, mother of two particiapnts from Sargodha
Whatever they want to learn, I will help them.
Our society doesn’t allow women to do things like this.
I have dropped them off every day myself.
I know when the girls come on the road, they will face problems.
I haven’t told my extended family.
I don’t know how they will react, and I hope it doesn’t have repercussions for them.
But we have women pilots flying airplanes now. What is a bike in comparison?
When they face problems, they will learn how to answer with confidence and earn their place in the society.
With additional reporting by Maryiam Pervaiz: @maryiampervaiz